QANTAS in the Second World War by Jim Eames

Second World War (1939-45)
Air Force

Jim Eames recounts the remarkable story of Qantas and its crew in the face of the Japanese advance towards Australia. Flying unarmed planes through war zones and at times under enemy fire, the airline supplied the front lines, evacuated the wounded and undertook surprising escapes.


Voiceover: Welcome to the Shrine of Remembrance podcast recorded live at our talks and events. In today’s episode you will hear Jim Eames, a former journalist, ministerial advisor, and Qantas executive discuss his book Courage in the Skies which explores the work of Qantas and its crew in the Pacific during the Second World War.

Jim Eames: Welcome folks. Can you hear that okay? This is indeed an honour. I was just saying to Dean I had a son who was a Captain in the Special Forces in Australia—he no longer is—but we’re a little bit of a war family ourselves. I haven’t told him I’m here today, but I’m going to get a photograph of myself somewhere here and shock him. He’s in America at the moment.  

Anyway, look, the story of this, the Qantas story, was the book that I always really wanted to do beyond the others, because I felt that it wasn't well enough known for its wartime role. There were several books published after the war, one in 1945 and another written by Hudson Fysh, the founder, which was part of a trilogy that Fysh wrote, called Qantas at War. But that was in the 1970s and so long ago that, quite frankly, most of the people in Qantas couldn't remember it. But they were both very big efforts. The role as this, I think this shows, was quite large and right from the very early days, and threatened the very existence of the airline of course, as long as other things were threatened in those years.

But just to give you a bit of history when we went international, as they say, in the 1930s, 1934. This was a route that took us up through Dutch East Indies and into Singapore where we met the Imperial Airways lot, who joined with us on this venture to open the international route to London. They were flown in those days with D.H.86 aeroplanes which were dual wing, four-engine things, which you know today would be awfully frightening, but in those days they used to think they were really safe because they had four engines in the long over-water section.

But the airline had been formed in 1920 and it is now and still the oldest English-speaking airline in the world. The only airline older is the Dutch KLM, still functioning of course. So the partnership with Imperial Airways kicked off but it leads to the European war as you can tell. The D.H.86’s were replaced in 1938 by very large Empire Flying Boats and they were actually purchased I think by Imperial Airways and we bought our share, six of them. They changed the whole context of that route because obviously flying boat’s a water aeroplane and they were amazing aeroplanes for their day. Sixteen passengers, two pilots, a radio operator and cabin crew. I mean, the style of service was something to believe these days.

[Qantas advertisement projected on screen]

I mean I don't know how far he's going to hit that five-iron but, but the thing is that this was just a Qantas publicity photo that made it through the years. A beautiful thing, a couple of decks and you can imagine the exotic Dutch East Indies ports on the way, overnight, sitting there with the fans flipping backwards and forwards. All very charming. That's the size of the machine. Well before it's time, a wonderful thing. Later on of course, and there’s somebody in the audience who knows a lot more about this than me, Phil Vabre, this thing became the precursor of the Sunderland flying boats, which were also made by Short, which became a very common sight around Australia in the years after the war, and we used during the war as a reconnaissance aeroplane quite effectively.

This was the Qantas base at Rose Bay where it all began in the wartime years. You can see the extent of these things. One of the things that was really quite critical at the time, and later in fact was the reason Qantas didn't go out of business during the War, was that Hudson Fysh was going backwards and forwards to England to deal with Imperial Airways on normal matters for running the airline and he insisted right from the very start that he wanted the servicing ability in Sydney. He wasn't prepared to let the aeroplanes go back, because they swapped aeroplanes at Singapore or in Karachi, and we had some of theirs and they had some of ours. But he was insistent that he wanted to be able to work on his own aeroplanes. He didn't want London to do it. And sure enough, of course, as things turned out, when the Japanese entered the war, Qantas would have been in terrible straits because we wouldn't have been able to do anything. So what happened of course was Qantas then, he won the day. Qantas created its own servicing departments in Sydney and the rest is history.

June 1940, you can see what's happened here is that when Italy entered the war it effectively cut off the Mediterranean. So, the London route was this arduous exercise where we kept our bit going up through the normal route here. Italy's cut the war in the early 1940s. But the Brits had to bring their exercise all the way down to Durban after they joined us, and then the rest went by ship—mails and passengers and whatever there were, went by ship to London. So, you can see the effect of the Italians coming into the war—wiped the Mediterranean out as a passage point for the Brits to get to England.

The problem we had, of course, was that there were all these serious suspicions about what the Japanese were doing in South East Asia. Timor, we were literally asked to go into Timor. It was not a particularly good idea from a Qantas point of view, doubt it would have been very commercial. But the idea was that having a Qantas representative in there, and the aeroplane cooling there, you could keep a bit of an eye on what the Japanese were doing in those days just before the war. So, the Government sent in a Department of Civil Aviation Officer called Dave Ross, who became an official Qantas representative and, I think, also a sort of a Honorary Consul, somebody I can't remember who—it was us—but it was all a sham in a sense. Ross could keep an eye on what was going on, the Japanese were operating flying boats down into Timor, so he was sending messages back to the Australian authorities saying ‘they're here, they're doing this, they're offering this to the Timorese’ or what have you, just to keep an eye on it. More on Dave Ross later because his story becomes quite interesting.

So, with the Japanese movement, or you could sense their ambitions. One of our captains, Orme Denny, decided to just see what we could do about avoiding that route which was going up past Singapore and on around through on the edge of Burma and then across to Karachi, getting us a little further away from Malaya, that was the idea. So the idea was he switched, he went up, surveyed with the Dutch, a route to the western side of Sumatra so that if anything happened as far as Japanese attacks or if the Japanese decided to attack, we would move further away and we could keep the service going.

Of course, you know what happened. December ’41, the same day the Japanese hit northern Malaya, Singapore-Karachi flights moved over to the west coast of Sumatra, Singapore-Karachi flights, ours. The Brits at this stage were struggling to maintain their flights to Karachi because they were starting to get involved in the war in Europe, which was now you know, really running. A lot of their crews had been seconded into the Air Force and the rest of their aeroplanes were being used for other wartime transport operations.

So, as the Japanese move quickly down the coast, Singapore's under bombing attacks and by early 1942 it becomes really difficult to have it as a normal stopping point. So, what happens is we keep the flights going up through the West coast but avoid Singapore. What we do is we operate a shuttle service on the through-service which takes Batavia-Singapore and back to Batavia again, so we get in and out of Singapore quickly. And the idea with the funk-hole tactics idea was, these are big aeroplanes as you can imagine, but what they would do is they would take off from, while Singapore is under attack and the Japs are coming further down the Peninsula, the aeroplane leaves Batavia and on its approach to Singapore, one of our captains had found a couple of nice, easy landing points on the edges of islands and up estuaries and things, which he called his funk-hole. And what they would do is they would listen to out on the radio. If Singapore was being bombed, they would land in these places a couple hundred miles south of Singapore, anchor the aeroplane and sit it out until they got the all clear, then they’d crank it up again and head for Singapore. And they'd overnight usually and then roar out the next morning before the Japanese arrive for their next bombing mission.

We lost the first one, one of our Empire Flying Boats, on 30 January. Aub Koch and his crew and about 13 passengers were jumped by a bunch of Zeroes off Koepang. They all came in from behind him. He hadn’t seen them until he started to hear the guns rattle on his fuselage. He tried to avoid them but finally crashed into the water and, and Koch and his first officer were among the five who survived. They swam ashore and were later brought back to Darwin. I don't know whether I mentioned it here, but Koch was in Darwin and finished up under a mattress, outside the hospital, recovering from his injuries, when the Japanese attacked Darwin a little later of course. So he had a tough war.

[Map projected on screen]

But you can see how the exercise was moving at this point. Batavia, in and out to Singapore, and then up the side there. Now while this is going on, the Japanese are operating missions from here all the way from their airfields in here, all the way over here and attacking ports along here as well. So it wasn't unusual for a Qantas crew to see Japanese aeroplanes, or when they're on the water at someplace like Subang having the Japanese sort of patrolling the skies and looking for areas to bomb. But we were lucky, we sort of got away with it, as they say, by moving as far west as we could and keeping the route open. Then of course, it all fell apart. Singapore was captured in the first week of February. Just before it fell, Bill Crowther took 40 people on the last flight out of Singapore to Batavia. On his way south he heard on the radio Tokyo Rose announce that a civilian aircraft had left Singapore, which must have given him a really nice, secure feeling. And finally on 15 February Singapore falls and the route is then lost.

The picture now moves to Tjilitjap which is on the southern side of Java, about midway down the southern coast. And what's happened is all of these, you know, the Diggers and the Dutch and the Americans who have been kicked out of the Philippines and are coming down through Java to get back into Australia, to get away, they're all gathering at Tjilitjap, which is not a very good port at all and a pretty lousy seaplane landing area as well. But that's the sort of Australian Dunkirk, I like to call it, because it was the last gasp in the Dutch East Indies. And what was happening of course, is Darwin under threat meant that Broome was going to be the contact point—getting them out from Tjilitjap to Broome.

That's a photograph of a Dutch freighter, which has got all these people on board. In fact, one of those, and I can't remember whether it’s that photograph, they were grabbing any ship they could get in the area to take these people out to Broome, and one of them had actually arrived in the area fully loaded with ammunition and bombs. They didn't have time, the captain of the ship is on record saying we don't have time to unload all those bombs, these people would just have to sit on it. So you can imagine what they were facing. Outside Tjilitjap there were Japanese submarines sinking ships all over the place and our pilots were actually seeing the subs as they left. So Broome becomes the focal point.

[Photographs projected on screen]

This is one of our aeroplanes being refuelled at Broome with the refuelling barge, it’s all pretty primitive in those days. But that was exactly the scene which would have been happening, I guess, a few days later when out of the blue, Zeroes arrived early in the morning at 9:20am. And on Broome’s Roebuck Bay that morning, one of our aeroplanes exactly the same as that, another aeroplane exactly the same as that which the Air Force had taken from us early in the war to use for their own uses, parked alongside it and something like 13 or 14 American and Dutch flying boats, many of them with people on board who were transiting Broome to get on and away from the war either to Perth or elsewhere, all sitting there waiting to be refuelled. At 9:20am in the morning, I think on 3 March, in come the Japs with about 9 Zeroes and that was the result. Just absolutely—that was taken by a Japanese reconnaissance aeroplane which was sitting up above them—it was awful. I mean, at least a couple of hundred people, nobody knows how many because you know, there were not passenger lists that were easy to get. The tide was running at all sorts of pace. So, it was an absolute disaster.

They spent no time at all attacking Broome as a town. You can see on the other side there, that's the airport where they hit a couple of American bombers and other aircraft that were sitting on Broome’s airport. But the most devastating of course was on Roebuck Bay itself. They just wiped the whole lot out. Some of the wrecks are still there, I think they're using them as tourist attractions at low tide. But we lost ours and the Air Force lost their equivalent of our aeroplane as well with no casualties. In fact we were lucky because there were three or four guys on our aeroplane. One of the fellows was on the wing and he saw a Japanese Zero approach, and a bit of noise and dived overboard, so we were pretty lucky there.

January through March, pretty terrible months for Qantas. We've lost Aub Koch here off Koepang already. Tjilitjap becomes really dangerous, because the Japs are marauding everywhere. One of the last of our planes to come out of Tjilitjap with loads on it disappears. In fact Phil Vabre to his tremendous credit, nobody ever knew what happened to it but we assumed it was shot down because there was an accompanying flying boat of ours which took off with it that morning and he made it alright but this one didn't. And so Circe was lost and I think Phil found that I think sometime in the 1970s, maybe it was more recent than that, Phil discovered that, via research with a Japanese colleague, that the thing had been shot down by the Japanese. It was never found, but that's what happened. We lost again, late in March, one of our aeroplanes taking artillery supplies and troops into Darwin—crashed in the middle of the night. We think he hit damage from the earlier attack, maybe a sunken ship or something. Of course Corinna and Centaurus have gone on the moorings at Broome, so it wasn't a very good time for Qantas. But I think the thing that always comes to mind with me on this, is that this has all happened in a couple of months. And I think there's so many Australians who don't realise how quickly all that happened. I mean, from 7 December to the end of March, the Japanese are on Dili. And, you know, it just brings you back to how tough things were in those days.

This is Dave Ross, if you remember, he's been sent to Dili and Dave’s not very happy about it because the Japanese are about to land and Dave tells the people from Civil Aviation, Military and Civil Aviation, he'd like to get out and they said, ‘Oh, no, you’re too valuable up there.’ So Dave said, well, that's not helping me much, they're all around me. So the Japanese land and Dave because of his Consulate and this vague Qantas thing I guess, Dave's left in position in his house. But what happens after a few weeks is the Australian Commandos are up in the hills—Sparrow Force I think it was—and they’re up in the hills and they're making a lot of trouble for the Japanese, knocking off Japanese patrols and goodness knows what not. So the Japanese Colonel says to Dave, look, we want you to go up there and talk to these fellows and bring them in and we'll treat them well, as you can imagine. So Dave said, ‘Oh well, suppose I'm here, I might as well do something.’ So they take him down the coast in a truck, they put him on a mule, and a guide, and off he goes into the mountains. He finds the Australians, I think they probably found him, and they all gather at a meeting and he puts the Japanese Colonel’s letter forward and explains the situation and Callaghan the commander of the Commandos gives him a three-letter word, what he can tell the Japanese Colonel. I won’t quote it here because it's a bit crude. So Dave picks up the letter again and back he goes to the Japanese and says, ‘Look, I'm sorry about that. They don't believe you.’ A couple of more weeks goes by and the Australians are still making a bit of a mess of the Japanese patrols, so another Colonel says to Dave, ‘we'd like you to go back and convince them again.’ Dave takes the letter and this time he's got no intention of coming back, so he stays up there with them. When he got out later when they finally lifted those people out, I think several months later—they kept harassing the Japanese and finally they got them out by boat so Dave came out with them. He's on record, I'd imagine, as the only Qantas person who was ever fighting the war behind enemy lines during World War Two.

After Broome, Qantas war efforts shift to the Papua New Guinea campaign so it moves over east. The Empire Boats, those we've got left, I think we only had two left didn’t we Phil? The Empire Boats begin to supply personnel, war materials to Port Moresby and Milne Bay. It was a little bit of a bone of contention with Qantas because the Qantas people—Hudson Fysh and the team, Lester Brain, who was the Operations fellow—were very annoyed because our aeroplanes were operating without any weaponry at all into places like Milne Bay. The irony of it was that on one particular mission, I think it was Lester Brain was flying the aeroplane and he went into Port Moresby with a load which was to go on to Milne Bay, and he arrived at the same time as one of those Air Force Empire flying boats that they’d taken from us—which were now fully armed. But Lester Brain was given the job of actually going on to Milne Bay in the unarmed Qantas flying boat and the other bloke turned the RAAF one around and came back. Lester got quite upset about it all but no matter what Hudson Fysh did he couldn't get the flying boats armed.

As it turned out, we lost another flying boat coming into Port Moresby and once again our dear old friend Aub Koch, who you recall was shot down off Timor and was in Darwin Hospital when the Japanese hit there, Aub was trying to get into Port Moresby in a bad storm situation finally getting close to running out of fuel so he had to crash land it at sea. An amazing man, we lost some people in that but Aub kept them together as they drifted down the New Guinea coast. There was nobody coming to look for them, too difficult because they weren't quite sure where Aub was I don’t think. But later on, they made it, but later on one of our captains visited Aub in Port Moresby hospital. Aub had worked out that if they kept drifting the way they were drifting they'd strike a headland in an hour or so’s time and they'd be able to climb ashore. So they were the sort of people we had as our captains. He was a master navigator, so he knew that if they drifted at one knot an hour they’d get to that headland. As it turned out a passing boat picked them up so they were luckier than that.

So this is on the eastern side, of course. Townsville becomes a critical hub for Milne Bay. I think there were instances where one of the aeroplanes actually saw the Japanese ships coming towards Milne Bay so it was pretty close run thing. In the meantime, we were back doing the normal Darwin runs as well, with support for that. This was wounded coming out. Of course, stuff was going in and we were bringing wounded out and military personnel.

This is a remarkable story, as I say, of Father John Glover. What had happened is: when the Japanese took Rabaul and Lae, a lot of these people had got out of New Britain after the Japanese took it, had made it here and made it to Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands, and there were all sorts of people in Kainantu who made it there but they had really no way to get out. You know, the place is 5000 feet above sea level, the mountains there are 15,000 feet high some of them, and the Japanese are everywhere. But what happened was: Father Glover decides, in his little single-engine aeroplane, that something's got to be done about them. So he literally flies from Mount Hagen over the Ranges, crashes on the coast down here when he's almost out of fuel, bums a ride on a boat, on an island canoe or something, down to Horn Island, and goes all the way down to military headquarters in Melbourne to alert them that these 85 people are up here in Mount Hagen. An amazing man. What was facing them then, of course, is the military didn't have any aeroplanes but we had these D.H.86’s which were capable of getting in there. So our people organised an operation out of Horn Island which went in and I think over a couple of weeks took these people in loads of about six or seven because, you know, you've got to get over the mountains and these old aeroplanes, or aeroplanes in those days which weren't all that efficient in terms of climbing ability, and they had no oxygen of course. So, they had to come through backwards and forwards, and the Japanese controlled the skies but we did get away with it. So Father John was a hero in his own right, I can tell you.

This was Mount Hagen, the scene at Mount Hagen with one of our aeroplanes there. One of the problems, that Orme Denny, our guy again who'd flown up the west coast of Sumatra to pioneer that route to get away from the Japanese. Orme led this mission in with a couple of D.H.86’s. When he first got in there the aerodrome at Mount Hagen was so wet that it looked like it was going to threaten the whole deal, boggy and what have you. So Orme being a former New Guinea pilot, he knew the ropes pretty well so he organised a sing-sing. He gathered about two or three hundred of the locals and said ‘Listen, you’ve got to celebrate this occasion.’ So they stomp their feet for about half a day. Made the runway so solid that it never had a problem again.

This is a straight offshoot of Hudson Fysh's insistence that we needed to be able to service our own Empire Flying Boats. When the war moved to the East and the Americans came in, they were desperate for maintenance facilities because they were bringing in Liberator bombers and Kittyhawks and goodness knows what not to push the war north towards, into New Guinea and then onto, towards Japan. So, this became a big Qantas effort with factories in Randwick in Sydney, and other factories in Brisbane, Archerfield. And this is an engine test run. You can see the people near Randwick started to complain about the aircraft noise, the noise of these engines being run up during the war, which means they mightn’t have had much to complain about I might add. So one of our guys Ernie Aldis designed this muffler system which ran into a 44-gallon drum with some sound-proofing in it to make it work and keep the local residents at bay.

This was taken in Brisbane, in the Brisbane area, I guess it's Archerfield. But one of the things that was happening, of course, the US were bringing out these Liberator bombers, the B.24s, and they arrived without front turrets and the Japanese soon worked out that if you attack from the front, you're going to wipe this bomber out very quickly. So, Qantas was tasked with grabbing these turrets which the Americans were sending out and fitting them to the bombers when they came through Brisbane or came back from the North to be refitted.

That's a picture of what you'd call I suppose the engineering line, Qantas engineering line at Brisbane, Archerfield. So you can see the extent of the work. The whole picture I think takes in a few Kittyhawk fighter aeroplanes on this side, which you can’t see there. This is the engine line at Randwick, or part of the engine line that would be. All this was really made possible initially because Hudson Fysh insisted that he needed an engineering facility in Sydney. So the Americans were pretty appreciative of all this and so were the RAAF of course.

The next crisis of course was Buna or Gona, the battle that follows the Kokoda campaign. The flying boats didn't play any role beyond going into Port Moresby, continuing with supplies and what have you. But Orme Denny, once again, the New Guinea campaigner, was sent up to oversee the operation. We'd been given a couple of Lockheed Lodestar twin-engine fighter aeroplanes by the American Air Force. They were to lead the supply of Buna and Gona, the troops who were fighting the battle there, right in the middle of the war zone I mean. That's Hudson Fysh. A bit of an old warrior, Hudson Fysh, he won the DFC in World War One and he couldn't stay away from the war. He went into Buna and Gona on one of these, into Popondetta I guess, in one of these thingos and kept complaining nobody had given him a machine gun. I think he wanted to shoot somebody. But he was a bit of an old warrior. He was always there, he was always at the front, wonderful man really. And they were taking this sort of stuff in. I think that was taken in there at Popondetta or somewhere. Supplies in and wounded Diggers out. That's the cover photograph of course of the book. Orme Denny insisted on putting Qantas—that was the first use of Qantas in this campaign. Orme Denny insisted on painting Qantas on the front nose of the Liberators. You can see the war, look at the eyes on these fellows, a terrible campaign, sometimes I think a bit overtaken by the Kokoda campaign itself. Very brutal, you know, with Japanese very solidly entrenched, to get them out of fortress holes in the ground. Log pillboxes, terrible. But the aeroplanes were actually operating in and out of the airports while the Zeroes were operating there at the same time. One of the aeroplanes which was I think one by ANA, was another Lockheed Lodestar was actually pinged by Japanese Zeroes as he was about to land and he landed and crashed to get away from Zero. It was right on the front line. In fact, taking off the Lodestars had to turn sharp right or left to avoid being taken under by the Japanese field guns which were not that far away. Anyway, that's the statistics: 300 troops, 9000 kilograms of freight, all within range of Japanese field guns.

Fysh had been trying for some time to get back onto that London route because communication was critical and aeroplanes were able to do it so quickly. And what happened was, in the end, he won the day and we got five Catalina flying boats given, I think, from the Brits to us under the U.S Lend-Lease program to actually operate the secret, what became known as the secret Double-Sunrise service out of Perth and up to Ceylon. No radio communications, only sort of important mail, admirals, generals, or maximum probably at any time of four or five passengers because they were so heavily loaded with fuel to do it non-stop you would never have made it. In fact, they needed so much fuel they put extra fuel tanks in the fuselage of the aeroplane down the back, to make sure that they made the distance. But you can see the distance of the flight. A twin-engined aeroplane doing, you'd have an average of 24 hours in the air, navigation by the stars at night, no radio because the Japanese were listening out because the whole route was sort of close to all the Japanese-held areas. What they would do is they would switch the radio on at midnight or thereabouts as they approach Colombo to get a quick weather forecast then switch it off again. Same on the way back, so it was only a terminal idea to get the weather and it became known as a Double-Sunrise service. Hudson Fysh decided that anybody who flew on it needed a certificate. So that's one of the aeroplanes, a lovely old thing. They just did it for months, and mo